LEGACY CASE STUDY:
Rio Tinto, Civil War and Human Rights Abuses in Bougainville
By Claire Burgess & Liz Downes | Image: Theonila Roka Matbob stands in front of the Panguna mine in Konawiru, Bougainville. Photograph: Human Rights Law Centre/Reuters
The Panguna mine in Bougainville that operated from 1971 to 1989 left a decade of civil war in its entrails, environmental destruction and social upheaval. A formal complaint filed in September 2020 by 156 residents indicates that communities continue to be negatively impacted by a billion tonnes of mine waste allegedly dumped into the Kaweron-Jaba river – putting lives and livelihoods at risk.
In July of 2021, an agreement was negotiated on behalf of the bereaved community members by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) through the Australian National Contact Point (ANCP) for Rio Tinto to fund independent environmental and human rights impacts posing serious risks to public health and safety so they can then be adequately addressed and recognised. This agreement followed a damning report by HRLC that exposed the extent of human rights abuses of abandoned toxic waste that has poisoned rivers and forests. Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner from Makoski speaks out in the report –
“We live with the impacts of Panguna every day. Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution.Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”
“We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they have left behind.”
Despite the obvious concerns, Bougainville Copper Limited (ASX) previously a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, which holds tenement rights over the mine is proceeding with a judicial review after the Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea dismissed its application to restart the mine in the wake of the ‘clean’ energy copper mining boom – and has been accused of misleading the ASX.